The Little Shop That Could

A confession: Before the curtain goes up on any musical production, I check out the number of songs in each act; if the show turns out to be a turkey I can start the countdown till the final curtain. During the intermission to Little Shop of Horrors, now at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company, I spied an agitated man pointing at his program, then drew closer to overhear him loudly complain that there were only five songs in the second act. I couldn't have agreed more. The only thing wrong with this Shop is its hours: Two fleeting acts and sixteen wickedly fun musical numbers packed into less than 120 minutes doesn't seem nearly enough.

Then again, I have a history with the, ummm, source material. As a child I must have seen schlockmeister Roger Corman's 1960 campy low-budget monster movie The Little Shop of Horrors a dozen times on TV's Creature Feature. For days after each airing, my two older brothers and I would imitate the film's man-eating plant by relentlessly chanting "feed me, feed me" as my harried mother rushed to put supper on the table. Judging from the gleeful faces of the many children in Caldwell's audience for this loony musical update, I fear no school cafeteria or home dining room is safe.

Neither written nor presented as children's theater, Little Shop of Horrors nonetheless offers up a raucous treat for school-age kids as well as lighthearted adults. Small wonder, since it's from the same team that went on to create Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. After a previous theatrical attempt (the short-lived 1979 musical version of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist/book writer Howard Ashman hit it big in 1982 with Little Shop. One of off-Broadway's longest-running shows (five years), it took home the Best Musical awards from both the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle before it was turned into a film (again) in 1986. With Caldwell's delightfully giddy production, we are reminded that Disney's gain was musical theater's loss.

Set to a doo-wop score, the black comedy pays homage to cheesy Cold War-era sci-fi flicks, as nerdy skid-row florist Seymour (Paul Louis) garners fame with his discovery of a new plant; he alone knows it came from outer space, but even he is unaware of its plans for world domination. Named Audrey II, after Seymour's bleached-blond co-worker (Rachel Jones), the plant talks to Seymour, showing him how to win dim bulb Audrey away from her sadistic dentist boyfriend (Stephen G. Anthony) while also arranging to get the green-thumbed orphan adopted by his boss, opportunistic flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Arland Russell). There's only one catch: The whole plan depends on keeping the voracious plant alive with regular feedings of human blood.

From its need of "soul food" to its Motown-inspired song "Feed Me (Git It)," Audrey II is nearly entertaining enough to kill for. "Sung" by Akin Babatunde and "manipulated" by Aaron Cimadevilla, the funky philodendron sprouts blood-red tips on teeth-shape thorny leaves as it grows ever larger (represented by a series of gruesomely sly puppets created by the Hasty Pudding Puppet Company). With a human cast as good as this one, however, it seems a shame to sacrifice any of them for plant food.

You can almost see the vacancy sign flashing behind Audrey's eyes as Jones gives an extremely smart dumb-blonde performance; even better is her dynamic, powerful singing. And on the subject of belts, Anthony plays her abusive, motorcycle-riding boyfriend in an outrageous, lip-twisting, hip-swiveling sendup of Elvis that's worth its weight in fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. While Jones and Anthony push the satiric envelope, Louis portrays the sympathetic loser Seymour in deadly earnest, successfully focusing the plot and preventing the show from teetering into a one-joke parody.

Director Kenneth Kay's keen staging deserves credit for delivering the production's drive-in-movie feel with a clarity those tinny window speakers never could. Likewise, choreographer Lynnette Barkley could justifiably change her first name to "Ronette," given the sassy girl-group moves she creates for the musical's dream-girl Greek chorus of urchins (Vivianne Collins, Karen Stephens, and Margo Peace). Changing costumes more often than Diana Ross, the three are supreme fun in designer Penny Koleos Williams's matching pastel outfits. Yet even their colorful costumes can't spruce up scenic designer's Tim Bennett's marvelously dingy flower shop or dilapidated skid-row setting. Add to all this a rocking four-piece band led by musical director David Truskinoff, and Little Shop of Horrors left me, like Audrey II, hungry for more.

Stage Whispers
Three months ago New Times reported that the upcoming 1997-98 season at the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre was in jeopardy. Concerned that their work on theatrical productions was less valued as review criteria for academic performance than was publishing or research, a majority of the drama faculty voted to postpone the season indefinitely. The vote was precipitated when two of the faculty's members, Ring manager/actor Kent Lantaff and lighting designer Thomas Salzman, were denied tenure by school provost Luis Glaser. A standoff resulted when Glaser refused to recognize the vote.

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